After working diligently in the background on a number of high-profile projects, a Christchurch-based developer is stepping into the spotlight with a tense and bloody multiplayer title for PC.

In November, Unreal Engine specialist Digital Confectioners will release Depth, a taut action title for PC that pits a pair of monstrous great white sharks against a team of four treasure-hunting divers.

Digital Confectioners has previously worked as a contract studio, lending its programming expertise to games such as co-op action-puzzle title Tiny Brains, action-MMO hybrid Forge, and indie puzzler Q.U.B.E..

However, Depth will be the first release that features the company’s name front and centre, and it’s also the first Digital Confectioners will publish itself.

Even so, Depth is being made in partnership with Canadian developer Alex Quick, creator of popular Unreal Engine mod Killing Floor, which went on to sell a million copies through Tripwire Interactive.

Quick began Depth as a student in 2009, but burned out on the idea after three years of development, and put the project on indefinite hiatus in 2012.

However, at GDC that year Quick ran into Digital Confectioners’ director James Tan, who agreed to bring the Kiwi company on board to finish the game.

“We had commonalities based on [the Unreal Engine]. We knew of each other, but he hadn’t formally met until GDC,” says Tan.

Depth pits divers against sharks in gruesome PvP action
Depth pits divers against sharks in gruesome PvP action
Depth pits divers against sharks in gruesome PvP action

By that stage, the game had progressed from singleplayer to multiplayer-only, but the problem was that playing as a shark simply wasn’t fun.

Digital Confectioners tackled this problem with a lot of iteration, trial and error, and testing, says the company’s co-director and project manager Sam Evans.

“One of things we always do with our projects is we try to get them playable ASAP, and we play them regularly – generally every day,” he says. “We also went to LAN parties around Christchurch and trialled builds on people.”

Reactions to early builds ranged from confusion to excitement, but crucially, improved with each trial. “It took us a long time to settle on what the game actually was,” Evans says.

Finally, the developers settled on asymmetric teams, so the sharks felt properly powerful. The sharks also got a third-person viewpoint and perfect vision to emulate their acute real-life senses, while the vision of divers in the game is often restricted by murky water and their first-person viewpoint.

“One of the things we found was really fun to add for the sharks that makes them feel even more powerful is they can just smash through walls, grab divers, then smash through another wall and leave, leaving the other divers staring at the puff of blood that was their friend,” says Evans.

“Sharks generally surprise the divers.”

Even so, divers in Depth are far from defenceless, toting a range of underwater weapons from pistols to assault rifles that are based on existing real-life designs.

“I guess everyone’s figured out that your average gun doesn’t work underwater and has decided that is the absolute truth – which is fine,” says Evans.

“But in actual fact there are quite a few underwater weapons. Most of them are Soviet, used by Soviet frogmen apparently for defending naval bases.”

Depth pits divers against sharks in gruesome PvP action

Each diver starts with a minimal selection of guns, but gains the ability to purchase others as they level up and gather treasure from the sea floor. Unlocked weapons are not necessarily more powerful, but instead augment existing designs. For example, an early unlock is a pistol with tracking rounds, which allow the diver to shoot a shark once then see it through murky water for a limited time.

“The main motivation for the progression system is player learning,” says Evans. “We didn’t want to throw 25 weapons at the player on first spawn and confuse them.”

The sharks are also upgradeable, via a system called ‘evolutions’. These upgrades are passives designed to augment a chosen play style, and include boosts to awareness, speed, damage ability, and health. “You can choose to be more hit-and-run, or more of a bruiser and stalk people,” Evans says.

Depth is coming to Windows PC via Steam in November. It will launch with five maps with another likely to be added after launch, and there will also be a bot mode.

You can see more of the game on its official site.